We are living in a world in which nobody is free, in which hardly anybody is secure, in which it is almost impossible to be honest and to remain alive.
—George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937
Shortly before Christmas 1936, George Orwell stomped into the office of The New English Weekly in London, dressed for an expedition, bearing a heavy suitcase, and declared, “I’m going to Spain.”
“Why?” asked Philip Mairet, the magazine’s urbane French editor.
“This fascism,” said Orwell. “Somebody’s got to stop it.”
Who was this thirty-three-year-old man in Mairet’s office? What kind of impression did he make? He was around six foot three, with size-twelve feet, large, expressive hands, and gangling limbs that he seemed unsure where to place. He had a pale, gaunt, prematurely worn-out face with deep grooves around the mouth, creating an impression of noble suffering that reminded friends of Don Quixote or an El Greco saint. His pale blue eyes conveyed a mournful, compassionate intelligence. His mouth was prone to twists of ironic amusement and, if you were lucky, a rusty growl of laughter. His hair sprouted vertically like the bristles of a brush. He dressed shabbily, his clothes not so much fitting his body as hanging off it, a thin mustache his only concession to neatness. He smelled of burnt tobacco and, some said, an indefinable tang of sickness. He spoke in a dry, rasping monotone whose aspiration to classlessness was thwarted by a stubborn residue of Eton. On first encounter, he could seem standoffish and detached: a dry old stick. Those who got to know him soon unearthed his generosity and good humor but still bumped up against his emotional reserve. He was a firm believer in hard work and modest pleasures. Newly wed, to a bright, bold Oxford graduate named Eileen O’Shaughnessy. Politically engaged but not ideological. Well-traveled and multilingual. Going places.
Just as important are the things he wasn’t. He was not yet a major figure, a committed socialist, an expert on totalitarianism, nor a writer whose prose was a window pane. He was barely George Orwell. Spain was to become the great rupture in his life: his zero hour. Years later, he would tell his friend Arthur Koestler, “History stopped in 1936.” Meaning totalitarianism. Meaning Spain. History stopped, and Nineteen Eighty-Four began.
“Until I was about thirty,” Orwell wrote in middle age, “I always planned my life on the assumption not only that any major undertaking was bound to fail, but that I could only expect to live a few years longer.”
He was born Eric Arthur Blair in India on June 25, 1903. His mother, Ida, who brought him to England the following year, was a sharply intelligent woman, half-French, who mixed with Suffragettes and Fabians. His father, Richard Blair, was a mid-ranking civil servant for the British imperial government’s Opium Department who didn’t reenter his son’s life until 1912, at which point he appeared “simply as a gruff-voiced elderly man forever saying ‘Don’t.’ ” In Nineteen Eighty-Four, Winston Smith is haunted by his childhood betrayal of his mother and sister, but he can barely remember his father.
Orwell was thus born into what he called the “lower-upper-middle-class,” a troubled stratum of the English class system that had the pretensions and manners of the wealthy but not the capital, and therefore spent most of the money it did have on “keeping up appearances.” He later regarded his younger self, with embarrassment, shame and no small amount of contempt, as the kind of “odious little snob” that his class and education were designed to breed. “Your snobbishness, unless you root it out like the bindweed it is, sticks by you till your grave.” Between the ages of eight and thirteen, he was a pupil at St. Cyprian’s, a small private school in Sussex that he loathed with alarming passion for the rest of his life. “Failure, failure, failure—failure behind me, failure ahead of me—that was by far the deepest conviction that I carried away.”
In the short autobiography that Orwell contributed to Twentieth Century Authors in 1940, he wrote, “I was educated at Eton, 1917–1921, as I had been lucky enough to win a scholarship, but I did no work there and learned very little, and I don’t feel that Eton has been much of a formative influence in my life.” While he probably exaggerated the contempt the fee-payers felt for the scholarship boys, it’s true that he was a mediocre student with a profound sense of unbelonging. Although he was known as a “Bolshie,” his alleged socialism was more of a fashionable pose than a deep conviction. One fellow pupil remembered him as “a boy with a permanent chip on the shoulder, always liking to find everything around him wrong, and giving the impression that he was there to put it right.” Another said, “he was more sardonic than rebellious, and standing aside from things a bit, observing—always observing.”
After Eton, Orwell rejected the chance to attend university and joined the Indian Imperial Police in Burma, where his mother had grown up: a surprising decision which he never tried to explain to his readers or friends. Orwell shelved his writing ambitions, but his five years in Burma did furnish him with the material for one decent novel (Burmese Days) and two very good essays (“A Hanging” and “Shooting an Elephant”) and a lifelong belief in the value of lived experience. Orwell disliked intellectuals, a word he tended to suspend in scare quotes, who relied on theory and speculation; he never truly believed something until he had, in some way, lived it. “In order to hate imperialism you have got to be part of it” is a fallacious generalization, but it was true for him. In Orwell’s writing, you often meant I.
Burma functioned as aversion therapy. Through seeing how members of the ruling class were corrupted and confined by their abuse of power and the hypocrisy that cloaked it, Orwell developed a disgust for oppression of every stripe and briefly became a kind of anarchist before deciding that this was “sentimental nonsense.” He returned to England in 1927 (on leave, but he never went back) with “an immense weight of guilt that I had got to expiate.” This manifested as a masochistic desire to thrust himself into uncomfortable and even life-threatening situations. “How can you write about the poor unless you become poor yourself, even if it’s temporary?” he asked a friend. A librarian who met him during this period astutely noticed that he was a man “in the process of rearranging himself.”
With, by his own admission, “no interest in Socialism or any other economic theory,” he sought to submerge himself in the netherworld of the oppressed—those who, by having no jobs, property or status whatsoever, had transcended, or rather sunk below, the class system—by becoming a tramp in England and a dishwasher in Paris in the late 1920s. “It is a sort of world-within-a-world where everyone is equal, a small squalid democracy—perhaps the nearest thing to democracy that exists in England,” he wrote. Richard Rees, editor of The Adelphi, thought that Orwell chose this path “as a kind of penance or ablution to wash himself clean of the taint of imperialism.” This nostalgie de la boue, which foreshadowed Winston Smith’s expeditions into the prole district in Nineteen Eighty-Four, led him to write his first book, the memoir Down and Out in Paris and London.
Published in 1933, the book marked the birth of “George Orwell.” One reason he gave for using a pseudonym was a desire to spare his family any embarrassment if the book’s contents shocked them, or if his career as a writer fizzled out, but then he always disliked the name Eric and was hungry for reinvention. Taken from the River Orwell in Suffolk, this quintessentially English name squeezed out his alternative ideas, Kenneth Miles, P. S. Burton and H. Lewis Allways. And a good job, too: Allwaysian would not have been a graceful adjective.
By 1936, Orwell was the author of three novels, one nonfiction book, a few weak poems, and a trickle-to-a-stream of journalism, all of which did not yet add up to a viable career. He could only keep his head above water by taking on work as a teacher and a bookseller. That year, he painted a grimly exaggerated self-portrait in his third novel, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. Gordon Comstock is a hard-up fugitive from the “shabby-genteel” middle classes who nurses unfulfilled literary ambitions and works in a bookshop to make ends meet. He is “not thirty yet, but moth-eaten already. Very pale, with bitter, ineradicable lines.” His self-pity, pessimism and misanthropy are so claustrophobic that his final surrender to the bourgeois conformity symbolized by the aspidistra house plant comes as a merciful release. Comstock is a gargoyle of Orwell: the man he might have become had he succumbed to bitterness and gloom.
In January 1936, Orwell accepted a commission from his publisher Victor Gollancz, a bullish, energetic Jewish socialist, to explore the plight of the industrial working class in the north of England. Published the following year, Part I of The Road to Wigan Pier is a sterling example of campaigning journalism, eliciting the reader’s empathy by interleaving hard data with a vivid sense of the sights, sounds, tastes and smells of working-class life. The image of a woman kneeling to unclog a waste pipe struck Orwell as such an indelible tableau of drudgery that he restaged it years later in Nineteen Eighty-Four. He was captured by the look on her face: “She knew well enough what was happening to her.” Orwell wrote frequently about the power of the face to reveal personality in a profound way, whether it was Dickens, Hitler, a Spanish militiaman or Big Brother. In Airstrip One, Nineteen Eighty-Four’s version of Britain, the danger of physically betraying one’s true feelings is called “facecrime,” and the torturer O’Brien’s metaphor for tyranny, is “a boot stamping on a human face—for ever.”
Although he seriously downplays the pleasures of working-class life in order to emphasize the hardships, in Part I of The Road to Wigan Pier Orwell gives his subjects their due as human beings, not merely statistical units or emblems of the struggling masses. So when he told the working-class writer Jack Common, “I am afraid I have made rather a muck of parts of it,” he presumably meant the more essayistic Part II, which he later said wasn’t worth reprinting.
The opening stretch of Part II is a kind of memoir, tracing the evolution of his political consciousness with punishing honesty. By saying that he was trained from birth to “hate, fear and despise the working class,” he implicitly makes the book a means of both education and penance. The rest, however, is a confused polemic. Orwell thought that if socialism was clearly necessary, then its unpopularity must be down to its image, which “drives away the very people who ought to be flocking to its support” by obscuring its fundamental ideals of justice, liberty and common decency. He identifies two major obstacles. One is socialism’s cult of the machine, which creates an unappetizing vision of “aeroplanes, tractors and huge glittering factories of glass and concrete.” The other is middle-class crankishness. Barely noting the existence of working-class socialists or the trade union movement, Orwell launders his own eccentric prejudices through the imagined mindset of the common man, excoriating all the fetishes and foibles that allegedly make socialism unattractive to them (i.e., him), including vegetarians, teetotallers, nudists, Quakers, sandals, fruit juice, Marxist jargon, the word comrade, pistachio-colored shirts, birth control, yoga, beards and Welwyn Garden City, the Hertfordshire town custom-built on utopian principles. Although Orwell claims in the book that he is only playing devil’s advocate, it is hard to escape the feeling that he has more fun insulting a kooky minority of socialists than defending other forms of socialism. After such a performance, for him to conclude the book by calling for “left-wingers of all complexions to drop their differences and hang together” is a bit rich.
Orwell made life difficult for Victor Gollancz, who had recently founded the Left Book Club with the Labor MP John Strachey and the political scientist Harold Laski in order to promote socialism. Laski, Britain’s most influential socialist intellectual, called Part I of The Road to Wigan Pier “admirable propaganda for our ideas” but Gollancz felt compelled to write a preface to the Left Book Club edition which distanced the club from the harsh judgments of Part II. In the preface, Gollancz put his finger on Orwell’s torturously paradoxical nature: “The truth is that he is at one and the same time an extreme intellectual and a violent anti-intellectual. Similarly he is a frightful snob—still (he must forgive me for saying this), and a genuine hater of every form of snobbery.” Until the end of his life, Orwell acknowledged that microbes of everything he criticized existed in himself. In fact, it was this awareness of his own flaws that inoculated him against utopian delusions of human perfectibility.
Gollancz also accused Orwell of never defining his preferred version of socialism, nor explaining how it might come about. According to Orwell’s bookshop colleague and subsequent editor Jon Kimche, Orwell was a “gut socialist”: “very decent but not attuned, I would say, to complicated political or military situations.” Yet however patchy and perverse his critique of socialism may have been, Orwell’s intentions were sincere. He believed that “nothing else can save us from the misery of the present or the nightmare of the future,” and if it failed to persuade ordinary Britons, then their discontent would surely be exploited by someone like Hitler. Socialism in Britain, he wrote, “smells of crankishness, machine-worship and the stupid cult of Russia. Unless you can remove that smell, and very rapidly, Fascism may win.”
Even as he wrote those words, Orwell was making plans to fight fascism more directly. Adelphi editor Richard Rees had known Orwell since 1930, but it was only when his friend went to Spain that Rees “began to realize he was extraordinary.”
“The Spanish Civil War is one of the comparatively few cases when the most widely accepted version of events has been written more persuasively by the losers of the conflict than by the winners,” wrote the historian Antony Beevor. What’s more, the most widely read memoir of the conflict, Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia, was written by a man who fought with the losers of the losers: the Partido Obrero de Unificación Marxista (Workers’ Party of Marxist Unification), known as the POUM. That is a very particular point of view. The POUM were small in size and influence, militarily weak and politically unpopular. So when contemporaries and, later, historians claimed that Orwell’s book gave a distorted picture of the war, they were not wrong, but it did tell the truth about Orwell’s war.
Copyright © 2019 by Dorian Lynskey. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.